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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 18-Jan-15


Sunday 18-January-15

Teaching Geniuses

I recently went to see 'The Theory of Everything', a movie about the famed Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. While the movie was mostly about his relationship with his first wife, Jane, it struck me how difficult it must have been for the professors at Cambridge to teach him. Not because of his disability, but because he is so damned clever. In fact it must be a regular occurrence there, as in other top universities. Even in everyday schools, the dilemma arises: How do you teach a genius? In the movie, as in life, his professor, Dennis Sciama (himself a noted physicist), as well as the famed Roger Penrose were generous in their support, even when Hawking backtracked on some of his previous claim (which itself says much about the open-mindedness of the man).

There's a nice story about Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the 20th century's smartest philosophers. He had arrived at Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell, who was already a famed British philosopher. He asked Russell whether he was a genius or an idiot, which itself highlights one of the dilemmas of genius: When your thinking is so different from everyone else, how do you know you are right? Russell thought about it, then asked him to write something over the holidays. After the break, Wittgenstein handed in his piece. Russell read one sentence and declared him a genius. Then he effectively handed over the throne by declaring himself retired from original philosophical work. In practice he continued to mentor and support Wittgenstein. These simple and generous acts gave Wittgenstein a platform on which he could launch as good a career as a person who thought so differently could achieve.

My wife (now retired) was an English teacher in a standard high school in the UK and talks with pride about the geniuses she taught, including that she really loved finding students who were brighter than her (unlike some of her peers, who hated being contradicted). She taught in a highly Socratic manner, drawing out their thoughts and encouraging them to challenge other ideas as well as carefully reasoning their own innovative arguments.

Teaching geniuses is perhaps the greatest form of changing minds. It is less a matter of providing them with information and more about releasing them, facilitating their entry into ways beyond your own comprehension.

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